The only thing more shocking than the bogus claim that Donald Trump colluded with Vladimir Putin to steal the 2016 election is the ongoing effort to advance that long-debunked lie.
Never mind that Special Counsel Robert Mueller led just one of the deeply resourced investigations that failed to get the goods on Trump, ABC News is here to tell you those ludicrous stories about peeing Russian prostitutes and billion-dollar bribes just might be true.
Its new documentary, “Out of the Shadows,” provides a platform for the alleged author of those and other consequential fantasies, Christopher Steele. Recall it was the bizarre and infamous Steele dossier, paid for by Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the 2016 race, that helped jumpstart the Russiagate conspiracy that hobbled a presidency and further divided the nation by casting Trump as a deeply compromised agent of Russia.
Given all we know now, a program informed by basic journalistic ethics should have exposed the mix of partisan politics and Trump derangement syndrome that led many in the highest reaches of media and government to countenance Steele’s absurd claims. What we need is a postmortem. Instead, we get a resurrection.
The first 50 minutes of the 68-minute program are a love letter to this former MI6 agent turned gun for hire. As ominous music plays in the background, it portrays Steele as a suave and tireless truth seeker – we even get a James Bond clip to make the point. Following a treacly account of his beloved first wife, who died young, a parade of associates assure us that Steele was the best of the best while spying in Russia for the British government and then as a private intelligence contractor after he left the service in 2009.
One of those clients was the FBI. With blazing dishonesty, ABC News suggests his work was pivotal in exposing Russia’s corrupt scheme to host the soccer World Cup in 2018. In fact, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz reported in 2019 that “Steele did not have any role in the [FIFA] investigation itself, he did not provide court testimony, and his information did not appear in any indictments, search warrants, or other court filings.”
Having falsely established Steele’s bona fides, George Stephanopoulos allows him to repeat his anti-Trump smears while merely noting here and there that not everyone agrees with his view.
Then, in a brief moment around minute 51, we’re told that Mueller couldn’t substantiate any of the key claims in the dossier. This is incongruously viewed as a minor setback, as Steele is allowed to assert without challenge that the special counsel’s report “reinforces” his findings.
A few minutes later, we are fleetingly told by a former New York Times reporter that Horowitz’s report “eviscerated” the dossier. Again, this central finding, which should have been the focus of an honest account of Steele’s work, is brushed off. Instead, after nearly an hour of “in-depth” investigation supposedly meant to get to the bottom of things, ABC News producer Matthew Mosk delivers this gem of obfuscation: “Now looking back on it, there are people who will say Christopher Steele’s dossier has been debunked. And there are other people who will say it’s mostly held up. Maybe it’s somewhere in between.”
To further suggest that Steele’s efforts were courageous and true, the documentary ends with the unsupported claim that his work was so explosive and threatening that he is now in Putin’s crosshairs.
Those, however, are only the documentary’s sins of commission; what it leaves out is just as egregious. As the Mueller and Horowitz reports make clear – and underscored by the recent indictment of former Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann for lying to the FBI about anti-Trump material he was disseminating – the Trump-Russia collusion narrative was advanced by a wide range of people inside and outside of government. “Out of the Shadows” reports almost none of that.
We do learn – again, mostly in passing – that Steele was hired by a research opposition firm in Clinton’s employ, Fusion GPS, to dig up dirt on Trump. But this information, which goes to the heart of motive, is overwhelmed by the portrait ABC News presents of Steele as a former British spy who peddled his information out of a deep concern for the safety of the free world. At one point Stephanopoulos offers this softball: “Give me a declarative sentence. ‘Christopher Steele is…’” To which Steel replies, “A patriot. Somebody who has professional integrity and expertise.”
As it repeats the misleading story that a Republican donor had originally funded Fusion’s research on Trump – he had, but it didn’t involve Russia – the documentary all but ignores the fact that two old Clinton hands, Sidney Blumenthal and Cody Shearer, had generated similar material about Trump and Russia before Steele was hired in the late spring of 2016. Such evidence raises the question of whether Steele even authored the dossier.
It seems just as likely that he was cut-out – a foreigner who could be presented as a nonpartisan expert to journalists and government officials to better obscure the origins of, and add credibility to, the political dirt. Rather than investigate whether Steele was simply a tool of an elaborate conspiracy, ABC News takes him at his word that he was a person of “integrity and expertise.”
For example, Steele first reached out to the FBI in the summer of 2016 about his initial “findings,” which ABC News allows him to present as an act of conscience. In reality, his work product did not belong to him but to the outfit who hired him, Fusion GPS, which had to have authorized his approach to law enforcement. Stephanopoulos never asks him about such coordination. He again fails to pick up this thread – including the key question “What did Hillary know and when did she know it?” – after Steele admits that Fusion arranged meetings for him with journalists in the fall of 2016 to publicize his wild stories. Tellingly, as eager as these news outlets were to denounce Trump, almost all declined to repeat Steele’s claims for lack of corroboration. This raises the never asked question: If MSNBC wouldn’t take him seriously, why did the FBI?
“Out of the Shadows” is one of the most dishonest pieces of journalism ever aired. Former Clinton-fixer-turned-news-presenter George Stephanopoulos should be held to account. . So too should every news executive who green-lighted this piece of propaganda. Such work undermines the credibility of all journalists.
Since Watergate, the journalistic mantra has been the coverup is worse than the crime. This documentary suggests that acknowledging wrongdoing is passé. Instead of covering up, just brazenly put it out.
J. Peder Zane is an editor for RealClearInvestigations and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.